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Abramoff lobbying scandal suddenly a boon for charities
The San Francisco Chronicle/NY Times
Sheryl Gay Stolberg, New York Times
January 5, 2006

Washington -- The White Buffalo Calf Woman Society, a center for battered women in tiny Mission, S.D., is far removed from the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal that rocked Washington this week. But the society, along with many other charities large and small, is about to become a beneficiary of Abramoff's legendary largess.

As panicked lawmakers rush to distance themselves from Abramoff after his guilty pleas in federal and state courts, tens of thousands of dollars in political donations from the disgraced Republican lobbyist and his Indian tribe clients are being returned or redirected to charities in a vast Robin Hood-like reordering of campaign funds.

Many of these charitable groups -- including the White Buffalo Calf Woman Society, which will receive $2,000 from Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. -- have American Indian ties, creating a certain symmetry, albeit an imperfect one, given that Abramoff has pleaded guilty to bilking the tribes of millions.

Some tribes such as the Saginaw Chippewa and the Mississippi band of Choctaw Indians are getting campaign contributions back. But the refunds are not entirely welcome; tribal officials complain of being branded as pariahs and worry that their clout in Washington will be diminished if lawmakers refuse to accept their money.

Yet the Abramoff plea bargain has been a boon to organizations as varied as the Boy Scouts and the Mississippi Hurricane Recovery Fund. President Bush is giving $6,000 to the American Heart Association. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is giving $18,500 to a Christian mission in his home state. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., is giving $2,000 to New York charities that have not been publicly identified.

Campaign finance experts say the donations are perfectly legal, so long as the original contribution did not violate the law. But the sudden flow of campaign dollars into charities is raising a new set of questions:

How do the lawmakers decide who gets the money? Why did they wait until now to return it? And would it be better to direct the money to Abramoff's victims, since he has said he is broke but has promised to pay more than $26 million in taxes and restitution?

"This is dirty money, and now they are going to try to make themselves look good by donating to charity," said Dan Kriwitsky, a Web site designer and Democrat in Sarasota, Fla., who was so outraged he wrote a reporter to complain. "It wouldn't surprise me if somebody is now going to get a tax deduction on that donation."

Tax deductions are not, in fact, permissible -- campaign committees are nonprofit entities and do not pay taxes -- and experts say the law gives elected officials few options when disposing of excess cash. They may return the money to the original donor, make limited donations to other campaigns or national party committees, or give it to charity, so long as they will not benefit financially from the donation.

"This is purely a political decision," said Kenneth A. Gross, an authority on campaign finance at the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. "It is not a legal one."

As for the charities, they are happy to get the Abramoff money, if a teensy bit uncomfortable with the attendant publicity.

"If we go down the road of assessing what's in the mind and hearts of every donor, we might find ourselves in tricky waters," said Diana Aviv, president and chief executive of Independent Sector, a nonprofit group that represents more than 600 American charities. "Part of it is to get rid of money that for them is hot. So what are their options? Give it back to Jack Abramoff? I don't think so."

Abramoff, 46, pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion, and he has agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors in a widening corruption investigation. The authorities say he used campaign contributions, expensive meals and lavish trips, including golfing outings to Scotland, to influence lawmakers and their aides.

He donated money on his own, advised his clients on how to steer donations and also raised money for Republicans. Bush's campaign organization, for instance, named Abramoff a "pioneer," putting him in a select group of donors who helped raise $100,000 or more for the 2004 re-election effort -- far more than the $6,000 the campaign is giving away.

Not all politicians are rushing to divest.

Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, is keeping the $30,500 donated to him and his political action committees by tribes represented by Abramoff. "He feels that Abramoff was a Republican operative, and this is a Republican scandal," said Reid's spokesman, Jim Manley. "He's done nothing improper."

But the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, Richard Durbin of Illinois, reached a different conclusion. Durbin directed his staff to review his campaign contributions for the eight years he has served in the Senate, and it found no personal donations from Abramoff. But he did find seven contributions totaling $11,000 that came from Indian tribes represented by the lobbyist and the firm he worked for.

"Because Mr. Abramoff's web of influence was so widespread and so corrosive," Durbin said in a statement, "I have decided to donate these funds to two Chicago-area organizations serving Native Americans -- the American Indian Center of Chicago and the American Indian Health Service of Chicago."